Approaching Web Application Security

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One of the cornerstones of cybersecurity has been the protection of software. These applications have been installed on local machines or workstations for most of the computing history. Hackers would use different approaches to gain access to these machines using corrupted software or other means. 

In modern times, the proliferation of web applications and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) has opened up many new functions and features for users–and, unfortunately, many new attack surfaces. 

What Are Common Threats Against Web Applications?

Web applications carry several layers of vulnerabilities, from weaknesses in coding and infrastructure to problematic issues with interfaces and integrations. With the rapid spread of interoperability and cloud infrastructure, such vulnerabilities are sometimes complex and hard to track.

Some common vulnerabilities include:

  • Phishing: One of the most common and platform-neutral forms of attack involves social engineering, namely phishing, to trick users into parting with their authentication credentials. Whether via email, SMS, or videoconferencing, phishing attacks can wreak havoc on systems specifically because, if they are successful, then attackers have unfettered access to system resources (including application resources) based on the authorizations of the tricked user.
  • SQL Injections: If an application takes input from users, it’s possible that those users can use that input to execute malicious code. One of the most widespread forms of this kind of code injection involves SQL, the core language of database management. Since many, many applications rely on SQL databases to function, a hacker can, through some tricks, inject SQL into web forms that trigger database actions. These actions include pulling specific tables for download, dumping the entire database into a web browser, or deleting the database entirely.
  • Cross-Site Scripting: Another type of injection is a Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) attack. XSS attacks involve a hacker using a vulnerability to include different client-side scripts (typically written in JavaScript or HTML) sent to other users. These scripts can direct other users to malicious sites or, in some cases, execute code on another user’s computer via their browser.
  • Overflows: Every program, including web apps, includes a “stack” of function calls and variable data in memory. With enough knowledge, hackers can feed large or specifically-formatted types of data that will essentially overrun the boundaries of a memory location and rewrite other data locations–locations that may include critical information controlling the execution flow. With the correct input, the hacker can direct a program to do anything, like grant superuser access to the entire system.
  • Weak Encryption: Encryption is at the heart of security, especially for web apps where data moves back and forth between browsers and servers. Without the right encryption, it may be trivial for a hacker to intercept and decrypt sensitive information.
  • Remote File Inclusion: Coding languages use “include” statements to connect source code to databases, libraries, or APIs. This is a common practice and has been around since the beginning of programming. However, if an attacker can access or inject code into a source file to “include” malicious code, they can use a web application to bootstrap malware.
  • Default Settings: An unfortunately common issue is an organization deploying a public-facing web application without changing critical default settings, such as admin logins. A hacker that knows how to poll URLs to find specific apps and who knows how to access back-end logins can essentially take control of an application. 


How Can Organizations Address Application Vulnerabilities?

application security

Regardless of whether or not a business or other entity has regulatory obligations to fulfill, these organizations must have processes to mitigate or eliminate these issues. Application security is especially important because interconnected cloud systems can make local breaches into national or international affairs in the modern SaaS landscape. 

Some ways to address application security issues include:

  • Always Update and Patch Applications: Web applications will often be composed of several different codebases, modules, platform infrastructures, etc. An organization must have the most up-to-date patches in place for all components installed within the recommended timelines and expectations of the creator of the patch. New (zero-day) vulnerabilities are identified through the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) database.
  • Run Regular Vulnerability Scans: Vulnerability scans are relatively quick and comprehensive (and, usually, automated scans of known vulnerabilities in a system. While not as in-depth as a penetration test or red team exercise, vulnerability scans are a trusted way to ensure that common vulnerabilities don’t surface in running applications.
  • Change Default Settings: Never leave vendor settings in place for any third-party components. These are just a honeypot for hackers looking for easy backdoors.
  • Use Secure Coding Practices: A program’s most basic security issues must be addressed in the code itself. Problems like hard coding credentials into code are uncommon but not unheard of entirely. Deeper problems, like poor memory management and protection, data sanitation, or failure to properly handle errors, can lead to headaches later. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to approach app development with an eye toward principles of least privilege for any system or API call.
  • Deploy Application Security Testing: Developers should implement regular code testing practices throughout the development lifecycle. Some approaches include Static Application Security Testing (white-box testing of code), Dynamic Application Security Testing (black-box testing of an application during runtime), or Interactive Application Security Testing (a blend of the two).
  • Vet Third-Party Packages: Applications can use third-party resources in two ways: installed modules operated on-prem or connected remotely via language-specific APIs. In either case, security flaws in the API or module can cause massive issues for the local program and any connected resources. Make sure to test and audit these connections regularly and thoroughly, and never trust that someone else has done it for you.
  • Use Strong Authentication and Identity Management: User Identity and Access Management (IAM) should be a strong, solid, and robust part of any app. Include IAM and authentication tools that meet the demands of your industry and user base. This may include implementing advanced Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA), biometrics, passwordless authentication, identity assurance, or liveness proofing.


Maintain Secure Applications with Continuum GRC

Ensuring your software and infrastructure remain compliant and secure is a full-time job. Many clients are turning to automation and data insights to keep their scanning and monitoring efforts working. With the Continuum GRC platform, you get cloud-based reporting that combines a compliance-based accounting system with risk-based analysis so that your business has a comprehensive view of the health of your applications. 

Continuum GRC is cloud-based, always available and plugged into our team of experts. We provide risk management and compliance support for every major regulation and compliance framework on the market, including:

  • FedRAMP
  • StateRAMP
  • NIST 800-53
  • DFARS NIST 800-171
  • CMMC
  • SOC 1, SOC 2, SOC 3
  • PCI DSS 4.0
  • IRS 1075
  • ISO 27000 Series
  • ISO 9000 Series

And more. We are the only FedRAMP and StateRAMP Authorized compliance and risk management solution worldwide.

Continuum GRC is a proactive cyber security®, and the only FedRAMP and StateRAMP Authorized cybersecurity audit platform worldwide. Call 1-888-896-6207 to discuss your organization’s cybersecurity needs and find out how we can help your organization protect its systems and ensure compliance.

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